If you haven’t been tempted to buy a smartwatch yet, or have been disappointed by your purchase of an Apple Watch, one of Samsung’s (many) Gear wearables or others, there may be another option to consider.
Last year we shot a video story about Ticwatch, a Chinese smartwatch that really stood out from the competition. Impressive though it was, the watch was frustratingly only available in Mandarin. Until now: Mobvoi, the Beijing-based company behind the gadget, has released an English version of its watch via Kickstarter.
Already it has attracted plenty of attention.
After just three days on Kickstarter, more than 3,000 people have backed the project, propelling the Ticwatch 2 past $500,000 from its backers. The project smashed its modest $50,000 funding goal just 10 minutes after going live.
That rush of interest means that the initial $100 “early bird” deal sold out, but the company is replenishing its other offers — which are priced upwards of $139 — to give latecomers the chance to grab a slice of the action.
You may have never heard of Mobvoi, but it has plenty of links to Google — it was founded by ex-Googlers and even landed investment from the U.S. search giant last year. It made its name designing AI software and services, so the voice-control and commands on the Ticwatch are pretty impressive. Beyond functionality, the watch is well-thought-out, too. It uses a unique navigational setup wherein you essentially roll your finger along the side of the face to move between apps and screens, in addition to screen swipes and wrist movements.
Building a community of users
Yuanyuan Li, one of Mobvoi’s co-founders, told TechCrunch that the team is delighted by the initial reception the watch has received.
“We’re working around the clock and watching new backers come in from across the world,” she said.
The company sold the original Mandarin version of its watch via standard e-commerce channels in China, but, with the international model, it opted for crowdfunding to build a community of international users to help refine its software and services.
“We love the community,” Li told TechCrunch in an interview. “This is the key reason we want to launch on Kickstarter. To have more early adopter tech users who have the vision to believe in true innovation.”
An even earlier version of the international watch was actually seeded with a select group of users, who provided feedback via a closed Facebook Group. Li said that process enabled the team to refine and iterate the software — and in particular support for local services like Uber and Yelp — five times before its Kickstarter debut this week.
“We have a big vision to ‘make AI empowered products with innovation,’ but also understand we must take every step very carefully and iterate with the community,” she added.
Unlike some Kickstarter projects, the Ticwatch 2 hardware is proven, which makes the chances of receiving the product pretty high. Software and connected services are where the key development lies.
Li said that Mobvoi is working to refine the English language software, stamp out bugs (we noticed a few during our demo with the watch) and lure developers to create apps for the home-forked version of Android that powers the watch. Getting the same level of support for apps and services that Ticwatch enjoys in China — where you can order a pizza, book a taxi or browse restaurants using voice commands — will define how useful its international version can be.
Software is the area in which Mobvoi specializes, but operations is not. Li admitted that the steepest challenge right now is logistics, and ensuring that backers across the world get the product, particularly due to regulations around transporting products with lithium batteries.
But, hey, those are far better odds than 95 percent of Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns, many of which are pre-manufacturing or fraught with risk when investing your cash.
Mobvoi’s eventual goal is to sell the watch, and other products like a smart car mirror unveiled this summer, to customers overseas. Li said the company hasn’t gotten around to even working on partnerships yet since it is fully focused on developing the Ticwatch 2 for international audiences. Nonetheless, she hopes that it can become a major player in the global smartwatch market in the future.